We live in divisive times. The American political scene has become hyperpartisan. The president, whether you like him or not, has created tremendous discord. These conditions have strengthened radical extremism, as witnessed by the sinister events in Charlottesville featuring neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
For us, it is also very unfortunate to observe a more pronounced wedge between the state of Israel and much of American Jewish community. We read polarizing positions over the establishment of an egalitarian space at the Kotel. Similar forces surround the infamous “black list” of rabbis deemed untrustworthy, according to the Rabbanut, to vouch for their congregants’ Jewish status.
In the Modern Orthodox community, we have seen the raging debate over female clergy with threats of expulsion of certain synagogues that employ women in rabbinic capacities. The discourse has become disrespectful, and our world feels deeply divided.
But the past couple of weeks have given me much hope. I refer to the efforts and care that my community in Atlanta demonstrated in our response to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.
In the aftermath of Harvey, a group of Atlantans from Young Israel of Toco Hills and Congregation Beth Jacob traveled to Houston to assist in the cleanup efforts. Rabbi Ilan Feldman and I accompanied these courageous volunteers. We spent much of our time assisting within the devastated United Orthodox Synagogues community. We pulled out drywall, removed ruined property and boxed up waterlogged sacred books to deposit in shaimos. We assisted our fellow Jews in their time of need.
Preparing to board the plane home, our group heard about people from Florida who were looking to travel to Atlanta to avoid the new Category 5 hurricane, named Irma, that was forming and projected to hit their area.
We spread the word through social media and by contacting shuls that the Atlanta community was opening its doors for all those evacuating.
By the time we landed in Atlanta, we had received 70 requests for hospitality. That number continued to grow, a tally that finally reached about 1,500 people.
It was an extremely complex task, making shidduchim between Atlanta hosts and Florida guests based on family size and special needs such as pets.
Volunteers, some who had just returned from Houston, worked day and night for three days to ensure that everyone who wanted to spend Shabbat (and beyond) in Atlanta would have a place to stay. They did not need to consider all the nuances and divisions in Orthodox life.
We didn’t have time to distinguish based on styles of Orthodox head coverings and hashkafah. In fact, the expression of Jewish unity spread beyond the Orthodox community: The Temple, upon learning of the many evacuees our Orthodox community had taken in, sent over kosher food and bottled water to do its share in support of our efforts.
In the end, our Florida guests came as strangers and left as family. With awesome communal Shabbat meals and a spirited Motzei Shabbat unity kumzitz, we witnessed and experienced this sentiment of ahdut Yisrael.
After all, the holiday of Sukkot is a great symbol of unity. Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 teaches that the Arba Minim represent different types of Jews whom G-d commands to bind together as an agudah ahat, symbolizing the Jewish people’s togetherness.
A Universal Mission
Sukkot is not particular to Jewish peoplehood. There’s a universal nature to Sukkot, so the Jews offered 70 bulls in the Temple to represent the world’s 70 biblical nations. That’s Rashi’s message on Bamidbar 29:18: “The bullocks offered on the Feast of Tabernacles are 70 in all, in allusion to the 70 nations of the world.”
This was also our response to the hurricanes. Our community came together, for humanity’s sake.
When we were working in Houston, one member of our contingent found a Muslim family whose home had been devastated by the flooding. Off we went to this home, proudly wearing our kippot, to assist a clearly religious Muslim family.
At first, it was somewhat awkward and perhaps uncomfortable. But within a few minutes, it was inspiring to observe that, through working together in this time of great need, we were able to connect to this wonderful family. They thanked us and asked to pose for a picture. We embraced and blessed one another before departing.
Such moments prove that our shared humanity is greater than what divides us.
That sense of connecting with good people across faiths was also felt when the weather remnants of Irma reached Atlanta on Monday, Sept. 11. The storm knocked down power lines. If power lines go down, that could mean the eruv is down.
We received an email from Karen Zimmerman, the associate pastor at Peachtree Baptist Church, just down the street from Beth Jacob, informing us that “someone in our church noticed that the Eruv that connects our church may have been damaged recently, and so I’m contacting you in the hopes that someone from your synagogue can look after it.”
In response, after we thanked her for letting us know and shared that all was OK with the eruv, she wrote: “It’s such a relief to me to hear that the Eruv is intact. … I can only imagine what it means to your community and I’m glad that everything is in working order. It’s a privilege to be your neighbors and we’re more than happy to have the Eruv set up on our property. And especially in the current social and political climate — please let us know if there are more tangible ways we can express our love and support to your congregation.”
Theoretically, the Talmud (Sukkah 27b) teaches, if a sukkah were large enough, all the Jews could fulfill their mitzvah in one massive hut.
Normally, we all divide into our separate sukkot, even within our own community — different schools, shuls and social circles. Recent events made us realize how large our community is.
What happened last month in Atlanta brought our Toco Hills community, with all its different parts, together.
A version of this article was first published by The Lehrhaus (www.thelehrhaus.com).